The Journey series
This week’s Mustard Seed examines the purpose and function of communities. Humans are not self-sufficient; we need other people. Companionship, effectiveness, efficiency, economy, and interest all lead to cooperation and specialization. People with the requisite complement of skills unite to accomplish tasks, pursue common interests, or react to events.
Our initial communal grouping is family. Barring exceptional circumstances, each of us is born into a family. Children must be nurtured and nourished for many years until they are able to function without guidance and support. Families are bonded by love.
Parents introduce their children to other communities according to the particular child’s physical, psychological, and emotional development. Upon reaching sufficient maturity, the child voluntarily joins communities according to their interests and abilities. These communities are bonded by location and purpose. Once a child is mature enough to leave their parents, location becomes less of a constraint. Some communities arise more by circumstance than intent. Unforeseen events necessitate action from those capable of responding.
Individuals will join many communities. They may also to leave a community if they find it unsuitable to their needs, interests, abilities and beliefs. If a member does not meet expectations the community may expel them.
Communities only survive in solidarity. Members must seek the good of the whole. Members must cooperate with each other. Subordinates must respect their superiors.
Communities thrive in subsidiarity. Resources, authority, and autonomy must be assigned to the lowest effective level of the communal hierarchy to maximize the contributions of the members. Superiors must support and appreciate their subordinates.
Order is maintained in a community through communication. Subordinates must understand expectations and superiors must be kept abreast of progress, problems and, needs. If members pursue self-interests contrary to the good of the whole or if superiors fail to distribute resources and control, the community will fail.
Next week: Rights, obligations, and limits.
This week’s Mustard Seed examines rights in community. A community may be a couple, a family, a group of friends, a workplace, a town, a country, or the world. Small communities are subsets of larger communities.
Communities offer companionship and security; they can also improve efficiency, effectiveness, and economy. The cost of community is a degree of autonomy. To belong to a community one must accept responsibilities, obligations and limitations. Justice is the proper balance of rights between individuals as well as between individuals and the community. For a community to function properly members must adhere to communal standards. Those who disagree with the rules may debate to change the consensus of the community, but they must still defer to the rules until such change is approved — or they must accept consequences.
An eye for an eye may seem a just consequence at first glance. It balances the scales of justice between the two men. Those two men, however, are members of other communities. The taking of the second eye will impair that man in his duty of service to the other communities. An eye for an eye also fails to bring balance in another area, the blinded man’s state before and after the attack. Taking the second man’s eye does not restore the sight of the first man.
Transferring assets that approximate the value of the lost eye from the perpetrator to the victim will serve justice better than mere retribution. The victim will return to an approximately even state and the perpetrator will bear a cost proportionate to his actions. This too, however, is blind to other important factors; ability, intent, motivation, incidental costs, and faith in community. Since their conflict also impacts broader communities it is rightly resolved at the highest level of community materially affected. If their conflict is impossible to resolve within that community help must be sought from the next highest level of community. Arbitrators are assigned, evidence is gathered, the facts are weighed, and judgement is pronounced. The expense of legislators, judges, jurors, and enforcers is born by all members of the community.
Next week: Solidarity and subsidiarity.
After a long hiatus, this week's Mustard Seed returns with vengeance. The concept of an eye for an eye goes back at least to Hammurabi's code of 1771 BC. But does retribution restore justice?
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth may seem fair at first — but is the eye of street-sweeper equal to the eye of a surgeon? Is the tooth of a teen balanced by the tooth of an octogenarian? If a man with five sons kills one of another man’s two, is the second man entitled to slay one of the first man’s sons or half of them? Is that justice for the sons? What of Jean Valjean who stole bread to feed his family? The bread has been eaten; there is nothing for the baker to take in return. An eye for an eye is better viewed as a limit to, rather than a prescription for, retribution.
Politicians debate at great length to create laws which define crimes and determine punishments. Judges hold lengthy trials and deliberate for ages to assess the damage caused, determine the perpetrator's intent, identify any mitigating circumstances, and weigh the need for deterrence. Then appropriate penalties are imposed. Perpetrators tend to find judges too harsh and victims find them too lenient. Even when justice is equitably meted out, overall good diminishes. Once harm has occurred, it cannot be undone. Two wrongs will never make right. In many cases it is impossible for a victim to recover their previous state. Even in cases where direct restitution is possible there are additional real and opportunity costs. Time spent resolving any conflict can never be recovered. The total costs to victim, perpetrator, and society will always exceed any benefit the perpetrator realizes from his crime.
Justice may appear to validate vengeance but no amount of retribution will eradicate the act which earned the debt. Vengeance might balance the scales of justice between immediately involved parties but it will never maximize good.
Next week: A better means of restoring equity.
I didn't start today's Mustard Seed until after finishing my yardwork before tomorrow's rain. I didn't write it earlier because, as I'll explain, I had unwanted visitors.
Five years ago chafer beetles invaded our back yard. The carnage left by crows and raccoons as they dug for grubs motivated me to finally begin the renovation I had long contemplated. The original concrete slab patio was cracked and sinking unevenly. The aluminum cover was so flimsy that I had to prop it up with 2x4s each winter to keep it from collapsing under the weight of the snow. I also decided vegetables for the family were a preferable crop to chafer grubs for the wildlife. My back yard was transformed into roughly equal sections of covered patio, open patio, raised gardens, and renewed lawn. After two years of construction we had two years of enjoyment. Our yard was a particularly welcome respite last year during covid-19 isolation. This year the chafer grubs, crows, and racoons returned with a vengeance. I converted more of the lawn to raised gardens and we hired a company to remove our torn-up grass and lay down chafer-resistant fescue sod. Two nights later raccoons come at night and flipped the brand-new turf.
After much online research I decided to set up a netting barrier. I was well into the project when my younger son finished class for the day and came to check my progress. Tranquil is not the word anyone would use to describe my mood. Matthew echoed back the advise I gave him so many times. "Calm down. Is your anger solving anything?" I blamed fatigue and took a break to prove it. Matthew patiently continued with other parts of that lecture. How big a problem is this in the grand scheme of things? How much will this matter a year from now? Other people would be glad to have this problem.
After dinner I returned to my project calmly. I couldn't very well reject my own advise. I was happy for the proof that, despite our doubts, children do listen. A few hundred square feet of upturned sod don't really amount to much. Next year this will be a humorous anecdote. Some people would be glad to have a back yard in any condition. Sadly, some people are so hungry they would be glad to have the grubs.
It's not easy accepting this advice when we're the angry ones, but that's exactly when we need it. With a gentle nudge from my son, my anger transformed into a great appreciation for the country we live in. We are truly blessed. We are also very ego-centric. I wondered what God was thinking as He looked down on me. I thanked God for the reminders He sends us every now and then.
Next week: Protests (barring unforeseen circumstances)
This week’s Mustard Seed asks if It's time to ban oil pipelines. My short answer is No!
Identifying a problem is only the first step. If we stop there, nothing will change. We must take the next step, but that step is not immediate change; it's careful analysis. We must determine whether our concern is actually a problem or merely a symptom of an underlying issue. We must identify all the factors involved. We must separate causes from correlations. We must devise viable alternatives. We must determine the consequences of proposed resolutions . We must determine who has the ability to act, who has the authority to act and who has the responsibility to act. We must apportion both real and opportunity costs. Only then should we act. Jumping from the problem to the nearest suggested resolution without proper analysis does not serve well.
In the frenzy to ban oil pipelines, pipelines are not the problem. The underlying issue is global warming. But are we leaping in the right direction by banning pipelines?
Obviously, if people don’t have oil they won’t burn it. But cancelling pipelines won't, of itself, halt the flow of oil. Viable alternatives for fossil fuels and the associated infrastructure are not in place. Oil will simply be shipped by other methods; rail, tanker, and truck; which are more harmful and present greater risk to the environment than pipelines. Restricting the flow of oil may encourage the development and implementation of alternatives, but cancelling pipelines is a much too hasty and counterproductive means of achieving that restriction.
How will we replace internal combustion engines and oil-fired boilers? What are the environmental and economic costs of those alternatives? Our present technology of storing the hazardous waste generated by nuclear power plants has a shorter life than the contaminants. How much damage will be inflicted on the environment and our descendants when those containments fail? Should we trade our imminent problem with carbon emissions for the less immediate but much worse problem of nuclear contamination? Hydro-electric projects significantly alter water flows and usually require the flooding vast tracts of land. What will the ripple effects of that be? Wind and solar power are intermittent and and variable. They require storage capacity to balance fluctuations in production and demand. What will we do with the worn out wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries? Who will supply and maintain the power grids? Wind and solar power are renewable resources but the materials used for their infrastructure are not.
What of other uses for oil? Will we stop using all oil-based products altogether? What will we replace them with? Corn and soy crops are already being diverted to supply fuel and plastic industries. This reduces supply for the food industry. How many people even realize that the switch from oil-based to plant-based products is costing them money at the grocery checkout? I doubt anyone can calculate how much. How many people realize that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is higher in many areas than emissions from transportation? Why not improve our farming techniques? Non-till farming may have greater impact on global warming than discontinuing the use of fossil fuels (see the links below). Our efforts may be better spent planting veggies in our back yard or community garden than in chanting and carrying signs in a protest march.
Yes, we must tackle global warming, but perhaps we need to give a little more thought to the matter before joining the ban the pipelines bandwagon. Paraphrasing James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister has polyester clothes and drives a gas-engine car to the supermarket, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well without using oil,’ but you do not give them an alternative, what good is it?”
Next week: Protests